SALT LAKE CITY — With ongoing security threats leaving as few as 15 State Department workers in the U.S. Embassy in Iraq, Sens. Mitt Romney and Chris Murphy called for a full diplomatic presence in Baghdad as soon as possible.
"We need as many diplomatic personnel as possible to encourage that government, to support that government in the enormous challenges that they have," Romney, R-Utah, said.
Romney, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, conducted his first hearing of the panel Wednesday. The hourlong hearing focused on how the U.S. can help Iraq become independent, sustain a vibrant economy and counter Iranian influence.
"The question for us is how could the U.S. best support Iraq's effort to achieve a secure and prosperous future and become a stabilizing force in the region," he said.
Romney and Murphy, D-Conn., met with Iraqi President Barham Salih, the prime minister and the speaker of the country's Council of Representatives during a trip to the Middle East in April.
Newly confirmed U.S. ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller, a Utah native and BYU graduate, arrived in Baghdad last month.
But Murphy said that according to reports over the weekend, there are only 15 staffers at the embassy. He also noted that the U.S. closed its consulate in Basra last September.
"From an outside perspective, it is hard to reconcile the withdrawal of our diplomats now when we were able to maintain a diplomatic presence in Baghdad and Basra even through the most dangerous years in Iraq in the mid-2000s," he said.
"How can we accomplish our goals when we have no one on the field?"
Joan Polaschik, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs acting deputy secretary, said U.S. diplomats and facilities faced serious, credible threats in May "and that threat stream has not diminished. It is still there."
The State Department recognizes the importance of advancing U.S. interests in Iraq through its diplomatic presence, but the safety and security of Americans is the Trump administration’s top priority, she said.
Polaschik declined to get into specific numbers of personnel on the ground, but said the State Department is constantly evaluating the situation and the drawdown is not permanent.
Murphy said if the decision is made to staff the embassy at lower levels, efforts should be made to increase security to return "some level of political functionality."
"If we maintain a dozen or two dozen political staffers there, it is an invitation for ISIS to re-emerge because we are not there helping the Iraqis do the hard lift of political reconciliation that protects our interests against the future rise of ISIS," he said.
In 2014, ISIS seized about a third of Iraq, terrorizing people with a level of brutality unexpected even in a country that had lived under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Romney said.
While ISIS no longer controls that territory, it is reorganizing in underground cells.
"The Iraqi government faces enormous challenges to prevent these extremists from terrorizing and radicalizing the people," Romney said, adding some militia formed to counter ISIS remain under Iranian direction.
Polaschik said the U.S. remains committed to the last defeat of ISIS and eliminating the conditions that would allow for its resurgence.